Old New York in Photos #32

1915 Subway Explosion Kills Seven, Injures Scores: 7th Avenue Between 24th and 25th Streets

This photograph taken on September 24, 1915 looking east across Seventh Avenue between 25th and 24th Streets shows the extent of a tragedy that took the lives of seven people and injured more than 100.

At about 7:50 a.m. on September 22, 1915 during the subway excavation for a new line, an explosion followed by a massive street collapse threw 7th Avenue into a scene of pandemonium and carnage.  A blast of dynamite caused the temporary roadway of wood planking to give way. A trolley loaded with passengers plunged 30 feet into the abyss created by the cave in. A beer truck minus the driver also fell into the excavation.

The reason more people were not killed was because the street undulated for a few seconds before collapsing which allowed precious time for people on the street to scatter to safety.

The motorman of the northbound trolley, John Mayne said, “The car sank just where I stopped it. I had no stop at Twenty-fourth street and there was no warning there. When I was half way to Twenty-fifth street I saw a flagman and set my brakes. As I set the brakes I felt the earth going from under me. The next thing I knew I was being pulled out of hell.”

Fanny Borie, 18,  of Brooklyn was on the trolley, on her way to work when it went down into the hole. “When the car started to sink there were terrible screams, and I think I fainted,” she said. “I remember feeling people tugging at my feet, as I was buried under some timbers. Then I lost consciousness and came to again when I was being carried up a ladder to the street.”

She was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital with her left side crushed. Two people on the trolley were killed and the others who died were workers at the excavation site, many who were crushed when the trolley fell on them.

Three priests from nearby St. Columba’s Church were among the first to climb down into the hole to give aid to the victims. Father Higgins said, “On every side men with smashed arms and legs were begging us for aid, some of them crying in a foreign tongue. ‘Help me, help me,’ they were all crying, and the horror of it was that we could not help one of them. From one mound of earth and network of steel I saw the arm of a buried man.”

As police and firemen descended they heard cries and groans of those who were terribly hurt. Girls shrieked that their arms and legs were broken. Many of the injured were rushed to hospitals with leg, arm and skull fractures. Some had limbs severed.

The blast which caused the shoring of the street to give way, was initially thought not to be from an unusually large charge of dynamite. The shoring which held up the street was designed to withstand 700 pounds per square foot if the street was loaded to capacity. The weight at the time of the collapse was 1/10 of that. The chief engineer of the construction company C.H. Stengle said, “It’s a puzzle to me. It was the strongest subway shoring ever built in New York, yet it went down like a house of cards.”

The chief blaster, Augusto Mezanitte, also known as August Midnight initially ran away from the scene, but came to authorities a day later to tell what had happened. He explained that he had successfully set off one blast earlier that morning and that the second blast was what preceded the cave in.

“Three or four seconds after the blast went off the whole street started to wave and tremble,” he said. “Then it started to crash down beginning at the end where I was standing and sagging down in the middle, then breaking up all at once with an awful noise.”

Some workers and investigators believed that rocks flying into the supports from the explosion resulted in the shorings holding up the street to fail. Other experts theorized that the explosion had damaged the gas mains and a gas explosion lead to the street collapse.

After a month long investigation by the coroner’s office, it was determined that the blast was excessive and that while Mezzanitte was in some way responsible for the accident, it was an error in judgment and it was recommended he should not be criminally charged. The blame was placed with The Bureau of Combustibles under the Fire Prevention Bureau which had not carried out their duties to enforce all the regulations with proper inspections.

The head of the Fire Prevention Bureau J.W. Hammitt denied responsibility saying there was no failure to carry out inspections relating to the kind of blasting that was going on at the Seventh Avenue excavation.

The coroner’s jury made two recommendations for future public safety. The first was that at the time of blasting in all future subway work, no traffic of any kind be allowed over any part of the temporary structure. The second recommendation was that the Public Service Commission should designate the maximum distance at which temporary work should precede the permanent subway structure.

About the buildings in the photograph: Number 255 Seventh Avenue housing Family Wines and Liquors was demolished years after the accident and a new building was put up in its place. But the the other three buildings to the left are still in existence, although they have each been modernized to some extent.

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